Some years ago, Johnny Muller was one of the best students in the advanced fiction workshop. He was talented and hardworking, a combination that won him not only praise for his fiction but also recognition for his essays in other English classes. He graduated summa cum laude and went on for his MFA in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark. A few months into his career there, he died in a car crash. His father approached Montclair State about a scholarship in Johnny’s name, a fitting tribute to what Johnny cared about and what he represented. As his father, John Muller, wrote: “Johnny’s mom and I cannot fathom the loss of our son, but this scholarship will honor his memory and love of writing, and aid other students in reaching their potential.”
Winner: Nelson Vazquez for “Salvation”
Nelson Vazquez is an accomplished, hard-working writer whose plots and characters are as bold and complex as life. His story “Salvation” won this year’s Muller scholarship for its compelling portrait of a recovering addict who deals with rehabilitation, religion, sexuality, and madness. A brief sample from the story: “His brother came to service as a guest, and they sat together with hardbound bibles in their laps and the hardwood pew aching their butts, half listening to the sermon. Luke was well acquainted with these religious rehab-centers, so he wasn’t particularly surprised (or overjoyed) to find that the Deliverance army was the same. God, and apparently tithing, were fashionable antidotes for drug and alcohol addiction. Still, he enjoyed the incense. He relished the sandalwood swirling in the air as the sermon faded in and out of his ears.”
Nelson added these lines after we contacted him:
When I finally became honest with myself about how I want to spend my life, it began to change in miraculous ways. I want to spend my life writing fiction, and this award validates my passion and my persistence in the pursuit of this dream. I am obsessively grateful, and although I’ve worked so hard, I owe so much to Dr. Galef and the faculty of the English department and creative writing program at Montclair State. These professors challenged me, but more important, they believed in me. Johnny Muller was a promising graduate student in the creative writing program at Rutgers Newark with a reputation for talented writing, and it is in his memory that his father continues to honor students with this award. To John Muller, I offer an especially warm “thank you,” and I want him to know that his son’s legacy continues through all the students who are brave enough to choose art over a business degree, a medical degree, or anything a parent would convince their child to be a more “secure” aspiration. I dedicate this award to those students and to Johnny Muller.
Honorable Mention: Nina Stupar for “Iron Ladder to Heaven”
Through a strong sense of perspective and character voice, Nina Stupar has created a microcosm of a world in “Iron Ladder to Heaven.” The story focuses on two characters in a train car they’ve climbed aboard, a young woman escaping her past and a drifter she develops an immediate connection with. What happens between them is tender but resolutely non-sentimental, a gem of character and craft.
Nina provided this bio note: I’m a senior at Montclair State University and will be graduating this May with a degree in English, a concentration in creative writing, and a minor in linguistics. I have always had an interest in language and literature and first began writing when I started college in 2014. I’ve spent the last six years writing academically as well as creatively, with a focus on short fiction and literary interpretation.
This prize is named after Tom Benediktsson, a longtime English professor at Montclair State University who both taught and wrote poetry, and who continues to write now that he’s emeritus. Tom generously sponsors this annual award to support those students who excel in writing poems and to promote the cause of poetry in general.
Winner: Sarah Sturm for “The Night before the World Ends,” “Another Day Waiting Patiently by the Window,” and “Death of an Optometrist”
Sarah Sturm, a junior majoring in English and minoring in Arabic and creative writing, is in the BA/MA English program. Outside of school, she bartends on weekends and Tuesday nights. Sarah is a poet of remarkable gifts, attuned to the tragedy and absurdity of our historical moment. She sings of and identifies with “the lady with 27 /contacts lodged behind her eyes” and the “recently divorced women / in my area who just want sex” and “the rabbit-man” who reminds her she is “a lone barnacle on the stern of a melting thing.” The sophistication and dance of her wordplay and sonics belie her years. She’s the real thing.
Honorable Mention: Charlie Hilfiker for “Broom Closet” and “PTSD”
Charlie Hilfiker is a junior English major in the Teacher Education program. Their poems explore trauma with startling originality. The young narrator in “PTSD,” a poem with a nursery rhyme structure, embodies a childlike voice without being sentimental or saccharine. The poem explores how a child often can’t discuss violence directly. Instead, they say, “this is what i call my memory game/pushing barbie’s body inside/darth vader’s head.” The speaker continues, “& if you asked her who killed her/she would say ‘the great big blur’/she would say ‘the beatle-bitten tree.’ ” Hilfiker’s haunting work says the unsayable, using language to approximate the bodily experience of wordless terror. I love these poems.
They have spent this past school year serving as secretary for MSU’s creative writing student organization Speaking Through Silence. They would like to thank their professors, peers, friends, and the Tom BenediktssonAward for Poetry committee for this amazing opportunity.
The Carter Ross Award in Flash Fiction is for the best piece of fiction 1,000 words or under. The award is underwritten by the journalist-turned thriller-writer Brad Parks, and named after one of his main characters, Carter Ross, a reporter turned amateur detective in Parks’ Newark-based crime series. Brad Parks and his namesake embody one of the prime directives in journalism: get to the point, and fast. This directive is particularly important in flash fiction, where a suspenseful plot may be reduced to one crucial event, or a character represented by a single salient trait.
Winner: Willow Bryar for “The Goat”
Willow Jay Bryar is an undergraduate student at Montclair State University, working toward finishing his bachelor of arts degree as a double major / double minor: English / Communications & Media Arts (majors) | Creative Writing / Mythology Studies (minors). Willow is studying to become a narrative designer (story writer) in the gaming industry. Additionally, he is currently serving as a teacher’s assistant for Professor Fawzia Afzal-Khan. Willow won the Carter Ross Award for his flash fiction with a dramatic point of view, that of an animal about to be sacrificed.
Thank you so much for your consideration! This has truly made my day! It is in times like these, I believe, when human contact is limited and we are left to our own solitary devices, that we can look to literature—especially to fiction—for support and as a means of escape. Though we may be stuck in isolation, it is important to recognize that this is but another chapter of the HUMAN STORY, which we are lucky to have had the pleasure to live through. One quote stands out in my mind from J .R .R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo says, “I wish none of this had happened,” and Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Thank you again.
Honorable Mention: Nathalie Vallovera for “And Red All Over”
Nathalie Vallovera is a graduating senior in the BA/MA English major program with a minor in LGBT studies. She enjoys writing young adult fantasy, especially with horror elements, and occasionally creative nonfiction. Nathalie won honorable mention for the Carter Ross Award by writing a short but poignant narrative about beauty images and adolescence. Her creative nonfiction piece “Find Your Own Shade” was selected as honorable mention for the English Department Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Winner: Kaleigh Nye for “The Rotting House”
“The Rotting House” is a true-life story with characters and places that straddle the line between rough and smooth, clarity and wonder, weakness and strength. Glimpses of the searing variety of pain that comes from losing people we love too soon are illustrated on the page by a restrained and trusting writer. Glimpses, too, of the comedy that seasons childhood friendships and bonds, again written with tenderness and eye for details that matter. This is a raw and very human story. We are lucky to have Kaleigh here at MSU, sharing the kind of work that prompts deep thinking about the fleeting moments in our lives and how some of those moments keep pulsating long after they are over.
Kaleigh Nye is from Whippany, New Jersey. She lives with her family, where she is the oldest of four and is about to be the first college graduate in her immediate family, as she is graduating this semester with a bachelor’s degree in English. She works as a childcare giver and educator and hopes to eventually be a teacher. In time spent away from academics, she enjoys swimming, being outdoors, and spending time with her family. She has always had a passion for reading, and for writing her own pieces. Kaleigh is exceptionally proud of the all writing she has done up to this point, but especially “The Rotting House.”
Honorable Mention: Nathalie Vallovera for “Find Your Shade”
Nathalie Vallovera is a graduating senior in the BA/MA English major program with a minor in LGBT studies. She enjoys writing young adult fantasy, especially with horror elements. But it’s for this excellent work of creative nonfiction—“Find Your Shade”—that Nathalie receives honorable mention. In what she calls a “trans confession,” Vallovera takes a searingly honest look at transitioning, shoplifting, and coming of age in New Jersey. In addition, Nathalie won honorable mention in the Carter Ross Flash Fiction Award.